The Soothsayer

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Chapter 4: Baptism by Fire

The lid lifted only slightly. Colin saw that its hinges were wooden, exquisitely hand-carved, and sitting inside the lip of the container. He pried the lid open further. There, in the middle of the box, on top of an old stained and folded paper, was his stone, the one he’d thrown through the window. The same concentric quartz circles across its surface confirmed it.

How the hell? How could he have known I’d pick this? How could this even be in here? Perhaps Mr. Potter was a magician, but better than any Las Vegas celebrity act. Colin took the stone. This was no illusion but something very real, and something very unreal had happened.

He pulled the paper from the box. It wasn’t the cheap lined stuff from his school notebooks or even the reams of white paper his mother sometimes used in their printer. It was thicker, almost the consistency of fabric, and tattered along the edges. He unfolded it.

Strange symbols were written across it. They looked familiar, almost like Latin or Greek and yet the accent marks and occasional curves suggested a language that was totally alien to this world and this time. The ink was old, faded to the point of being almost transparent in some areas.

He turned the paper around and instantly recognized what he saw, hand-drawn latitude and longitude lines over a rocky coastline. A sharp outcropping was the most dominant feature. A different ink had been used here, written by a different hand. It was still old but was not fading from the page.

It’s a map. A real map. Colin looked around. The fog had cleared a little. He stared at the sharp cliffs of the marina, the sun peeking just above their rocky points before hiding again in the clouds.

Colin’s eyes raced back to the map. There, scrawled in the margins, smeared by several inkblots were the words “435 paces northwest off the point.” Slightly below that was scribbled the phrase, “there lies the balm of Gilead, to soothe the serpent’s sting, the cave . . .” Below that appeared the rough initials R.H.D.

No, no way. This couldn’t be his . . .Richard Henry Dana. Maybe Potter was right. It must’ve belonged to him. But why would he hide this balm thing? Why would he need to? Unless there was something more to it. Did those creatures come for him too?

The foghorn called out, and then he heard it. That strange second horn call, the same as from the night before. He moved instinctively forward to the tide pools. He paused. What the hell am I doing? I don’t have time for this. But some part of him seemed to understand what his conscious mind did not. Balm. Balm of Gilead. Healing. Is there a balm in Gilead? Tell me, I implore. . . quoth the raven. . . Poe’s words crept up from his subconscious. It was no coincidence that his world was spinning out of control and here was a lifeline. If there was even a chance he could find the balm and save his mother with it, he had to try.

He walked away from the shops, back to the broken steps, down to the beach. The water’s edge had receded again. The sun was slowly burning through patches of fog here, and he saw no sign of the terrors he had witnessed the night before. He paused for a moment on the steps, peering into the few shadows melting into the waves. Gone. They’re gone. He jumped down onto the sand and leaving the sidewalk and railings behind, made his way along the edge of the cliffs past the beach area. He followed a narrow footpath that curved between the high cliff walls on his right and the treacherous reefs to his left, still exposed from the ebb and flow of the tide.

What’s a pace? Five feet? Four yards? He wished he’d bothered to look the term up before trying this venture. Finally, he settled on a foot and a half, and with each step, he counted.

The trail was easy enough at first. Tourists often made their way along this shore to collect shells, but the farther he walked, the narrower the path became until it finally disappeared altogether. The strange foghorn sounded again. It was louder now and, unlike the marina’s horn, seemed somehow deeper, earthier.

The water line came closer as Colin continued to count, and as he made his way over larger and larger rocks, he could feel the spray of the waves reach towards him. He gingerly folded the map fragment back into the box and stuffed it into his jean pocket. Good enough for now, he thought as he continued his journey.

I’m going to be stranded if this tide comes in any farther, he worried. Maybe Dana’s cave was covered in a landslide? Maybe it never existed.

Then as he rounded a sharp corner, the fog dispersed completely. Before him, set deep in the rock, was a narrow opening roughly six feet high but only a few feet wide, something only one thin person could fit through at a time. The wash of the waves poured into the gap. Colin peered into the cavity. The water was deep, and the passage within twisted out of sight.

Reflected across the dark stone walls, he spotted a light, as if someone inside had lit a torch.

Colin’s voice echoed in the passage, “Hello? S-Someone there?” The light blinked out. He looked down at the water pulling out again. Now or never.

He jumped into the icy foam. His eyes widened. The water was so cold that he wondered if California’s sun had ever warmed these waters. He waded into the cleft between the rocks. The water rose around him as the tide pushed another wave in.

Shouldn’t the tide be out? He wondered as his feet grazed the sandy surfaces below. It’s gotta be at least six feet in here. Colin grasped at the slippery walls but to no avail and began swimming outright down the passage until his hands touched sloping pebbles and rocks.

He crawled forward out of the water and the passage opened up into a wide empty cavern. The ground was covered in sand, shells, and stones. The smell of saltwater and the faint scent of decaying fish filled his nostrils. Colin stood and walked forward. He heard the wash of pebbles play against the stone walls like a muted hum of rain, before turning around a corner to see, just to the left of the passage, the mouth of the cave opened wide to the ocean. He realized he could never have seen the big opening by walking along the waterline. Piles of rocks and boulders barred any line of sight. He watched the waves as they broke on the rocks at the opening and piercing the remnants of the fog bank that hung just above the water, like an unwanted guest loitering at the door.

Colin pulled the puzzle box from his drenched jeans and opened the wet parchment. He had tried his best to keep it dry as he swam but it had been hard enough keeping his head above the water.

Thankfully the seawater hadn’t ruined the ancient letters or the map on the other side. Colin kicked at the stones near his feet as he studied Dana’s script. There was no mention of where this treasure might be found and, of course, Colin hadn’t brought any kind of shovel.

He heard a rolling mass and turned to the mouth of the cave. With a great wind, the horn’s call echoed throughout the cavern. Colin dropped the parchment to cover his ears. A giant wave broke through the mouth and slammed him against the back wall. Water ripped and spun him around. In an instant, he was pulled out into the open ocean.

Colin’s head broke the surface and water filled his mouth. He spat out the acrid wash and rubbed his eyes. The sting of the saltwater left his vision blurry. Colin twisted his body, flung his arms forward and kicked against the powerful undertow, but made no progress. A gurgling sound, almost rhythmic in nature, slowly built and echoed over the breakers that surrounded him. His eyes widened and his sight cleared as he saw the seafoam ahead of him spin around into a vortex. Water rushed into the dark hole from all sides. He turned around in the water again, more desperate to escape, and paddled but the draw of the hole was too great. It was a mouth intent on a meal. He clutched for a handhold. Nothing.

No. Not like this.

His screams met only water and foam as he was swallowed into darkness.

“Pull him, Balaam! Time is not our friend here!”

Colin heard her voice first. It was hushed and accented like Jennifer’s.

A muffled, strange-sounding voice responded, “Pull the bilge rat yourself then.”

He instinctively reached in his pocket and found the soaked 2x3 photo of his father and him was still there. He breathed easier, it was the only anchor of certainty left. Colin felt something large and hard against the nape of his neck, pulling on his shirt. He opened his eyes. The saltwater stung and blurred his vision. As they cleared, he saw a young woman standing over him,

Jennifer? The resemblance was uncanny, yet the twin had fiery red hair, and wore what Colin could only guess was some strange reject of a gown from a renaissance fair, a mix of purple and brown, torn and shabby. The other form was darker, bulkier somehow or perhaps closer to the ground, but hard to make out.

“What’s your name, boy?” the red-haired young woman said in a whisper.

Colin gasped but again, no words came.

“The water has dashed his brains,” the other snorted.

“Wh-who are you? Where . . . ” Colin finally stuttered.

The girl knelt down to him, “Quiet your voice! My name is above your station until I know your intent. The kingdom of Gilead has enough enemies.”

“What? Gil-Gilead?” Colin rubbed his eyes and felt for the map in his pocket. The parchment was gone.

“Has the water deafened you as well?” the other voice replied.

Colin rubbed his eyes again and turned to find the muzzle of a donkey inches from his face. The jackass stared at him for a second before turning to the girl. “I think we should throw him back in.”

Colin’s mouth dropped and his vision narrowed. It was beyond him. The world began to spin around him and he slumped back onto the rocks, unconscious.

“Something I said?” the donkey’s voice echoed in Colin’s ears before consciousness shrank to a tiny point, then disappeared.

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